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Westmoreland native faces dangers of crab fishing on 'Deadliest Catch'

| Friday, April 19, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Discovery Channel
Captain 'Wild Bill' Wichrowski, an Irwin native
Discovery Channel
The crew of Cape Caution: deckhand Nick McGlashan, deckhand Zack Larson (Wichrowski's son), Captain 'Wild Bill' Wichrowski, greenhorn Michael Kerby Mitchell, and engineer Kerby Glenn Mitchell.

The Discovery Channel isn't kidding, and the rumors you've heard are true: Fishing for crab is one of the most dangerous and fatal professions on the planet, says a Westmoreland County native who does it for a living.

“There's a reason they call it the most dangerous job,” says Capt. “Wild Bill” Wichrowski, one of the stars on Discovery's “Deadliest Catch.” “It can be deadly, and people can be maimed and killed.”

Wichrowski — an Irwin native who left in 1975, and now divides his time between Alaska and Mexico — and the rest of the crabbing crew return to “Deadliest Catch,” which just started its ninth season. The reality show documents the daily lives of crew members as they comb the Bering Sea off Alaska for king, blue and snow crabs.

Why is crabbing so dangerous? You're on a surface that moves in different directions, depending on the wind, Wichrowski says, and it's filled with pots — 7-foot by 7-foot cagelike structures placed on the ocean's floor to catch the crab. The pots can weigh 1,000 pounds, and often swing on the end of a crane. The fishing crew suffers from lack of sleep and irregular food consumption, and nearly round-the-clock work for a week or two at a time, he says. Slippery, treacherous ice often covers the boat deck.

“It's like being in a hockey rink in an earthquake,” says Wichrowski, 55, who still has family members who live in the Greensburg area.

“You just throw anything normal out the window,” he says. “You just have all this machinery in constant motion. ... It's a recipe for disaster if you're not at the top of your game 150 percent of the time.”

So, why does Wichrowski continue working in this treacherous profession?

“It is an adrenaline rush,” he says. “You earn a decent amount of money in a short period of time. In doing so, it allows you to live your life the way you want to live.”

The Navy veteran recalls meeting a crab fisherman in a billiards room, and Wichrowski heard that the business offered serious money: at least $200,000 for several months of work during the season, which lasts generally from six months to nine months. More-experienced fishers can earn as much as $700,000.

“I figured, if this guy can make this kind of money ... I thought I'd be a rock star in the industry if I got in,” he says.

Wichrowski got his first job in the crabbing industry in 1979 as an electrician on a freezer boat, where the crab is processed. The captain of that boat, Tom Dundus, became the godfather to Wichrowski's two sons, Zack, who now also works on the crab boat, and Jake.

Another notable crab-boat captain — Phil Harris, who died in 2010 at age 53 while his boat, Cornelia Marie, was in port — worked with Wichrowski, who calls Harris a close friend, mentor and fellow renegade. A new Simon & Schuster book — “Captain Phil Harris: The Legendary Crab Fisherman, Our Hero, Our Dad,” written by sons Josh and Jake Harris — tells the personal story of the captain often described as larger than life.

“He had a great sense of humor,” Wichrowski says. “He was a crab fisherman.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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